So you see a news story reporting that a state senator has been in what police say was an alcohol-related car crash that injured two people. Not only was it a powerful politician, but the head of a committee that’s responsible for legislation dealing with law enforcement issues. And not only that, but there’s a police video showing the senator doesn’t even remember what kind of alcohol he was drinking.
“It can’t get any worse than this,” you say to yourself.
To which I say, “Ha ha ha. You don’t know New Mexico!”
On the video made of state Sen. Sen. Richard Martinez immediately after his June 29 arrest, you can hear a police officer at the scene say, “Do you guys have something you could cover that plate up with? It says, ‘Senator number five.’ ”
Oh man …
He might as well have said, “Hey guys, should we start the cover-up now?”
We’ve since learned that the cop, Officer Lance Pepper, was a patrolman for New Mexico State Police.
To their everlasting credit, the other police at the scene did not cover up the plate. And the Española Police Department, the agency in charge of the case, did not try to squelch the video. At a time when law enforcement in Rio Arriba County has taken some lumps, these facts deserve the thanks of the public.
And I suppose the state police officials deserve some credit, too. As first reported by the Rio Grande Sun, they’re conducting an internal investigation of Pepper’s knee-jerk reaction to try to protect the image of a politician who’d just smashed into the rear of another vehicle and who refused to take a Breathalyzer test.
But this incident only opens a can of disgusting worms in the minds of an increasingly cynical populace. You have to wonder how many other politicians have gotten breaks from cooperating cops? How many times did the other officers at a scene go ahead and cover the license plate? How many videos have been “lost” because they were too embarrassing for the offender being protected?
Maybe I’m suffering a little paranoia here from reading too many James Ellroy novels in which dirty cops routinely cover up for their political patrons. But you have to wonder why that was Pepper’s chief concern and whether there is some sort of “unwritten rule.”
I suspected that happened in Santa Fe right after I started covering crime for this newspaper.
Checking the new cases at Santa Fe County Magistrate County one May afternoon in 1989, there was a new file for a defendant listed in court documents, including a police report, as “Edd Lopez.”
According to the police report, this guy Edd Lopez was arrested after Santa Fe police responded to a 5:23 a.m. call for a domestic dispute involving a firearm.
Edd’s wife told police that her husband had come home drunk, and during an ensuing argument, Edd had picked up a pistol and fired a shot into a sitting room wall.
When she tried to call police, the woman told police, Edd hit her on the hand with the telephone receiver. Cops found a loaded .38-caliber Colt revolver with five live rounds and one spent cartridge. And, yes, there was a bullet hole in the wall.
It took a day or so to learn that “Edd” was actually Eddie Lopez, a two-term state senator from Santa Fe.
Though he originally was charged with aggravated assault, aggravated battery and negligent use of a firearm. Several months later, then-District Attorney Chet Walter dropped the felony charges against Lopez, who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor firearms charge.
Lopez stayed in the Senate until his death in 1995.
That wasn’t Lopez’s first brush with law enforcement, either. He was charged three times with drunken driving in the 1970s, back when he was a member of the House. But he never got convicted. The last DWI was in January 1978, when he was involved in an early morning accident in which he rammed his car into the back of a tanker truck. He refused to take a sobriety test and initially was ticketed for DWI and reckless driving. However, Rudy Miller, then Santa Fe’s police chief, voided those tickets for “insufficient evidence.”
Unlike his first couple of DWIs, Lopez did pay politically for that last one. He was defeated in the Democratic primary that year by Leo Catanach.
I’ve always wondered whether the responding officer purposely used a misleading name on his report to help a troubled senator on that early May morning in 1989. Or whether he just couldn’t spell “Eddie.”